A few months ago, workers restoring Dallas’ Old Municipal Building began ripping down ceilings that were added in the 1950s. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports they discovered evidence of something that wasn’t supposed to be there: historic, hand-painted murals from 1934 that were reportedly destroyed.
There were ten murals on the second floor of the Old Municipal Building at Harwood and Commerce Street. That was Dallas’ City Hall — which was built more than a century ago — and the murals depicted the city’s history. But in 1954, those ten murals were supposedly destroyed. Dallas artist Philip Lamb recalls reading a Dallas Morning News report on their fate: “The headline was ‘Murals Are Doomed.’”
How very Dallas — kill anything remotely un-chic, anything old. Why did the murals have to go? Well, Lamb says, the push actually came from a sentiment bigger than just Dallas’ embrace of whatever’s shiny and next. At the time, Americans in general wanted to put the past behind them.
“The war had just ended not too long ago,”he says. “And there was such a movement to modernize. Downtowns were getting all their old facades covered with aluminum. And I think that when people saw those murals, they just reminded them of how awful things were from the early ’30s.”
The murals were painted by Jerry Bywaters and Alexander Hogue in 1934. Bywaters was more than a major Texas artist. He wrote art reviews, taught art at SMU and ran what was then called the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (now the DMA). Bywaters’ and Hogue’s murals weren’t grim. They marked pivotal points in Dallas’ history — like 1929, when the first viaducts were built across the Trinity. But the murals looked ‘old-timey.’ They showed Dallas as a tiny frontier town putting on airs. In 1954, all that just felt ‘out-of-date.’
In 1992, Lamb researched the lost murals because he’d been commissioned by DART to create artworks for Union Station. He modeled his new terrazzo murals on photos of the Hogue-Bywaters originals. But he updated their images to include events like the opening of the DFW airport.
Dale Sellers is CEO of Phoenix 1 Restoration, the company restoring the Municipal Building because it’s going to become UNT’s new downtown law campus. He calls what they’re doing “a full-building, envelope restoration. We’re going to re-finish all the stones, replace all the windows and replace all the roofing system.” They’ll put in handicapped access and new HVAC. And they’re ripping out all the ‘upgrades’ added in the 1950s, like the vinyl tiles covering the marble floors. And the fluorescent lights and drop ceiling tiles that covered the old plaster work.
But a few months ago, Phoenix workers pulled down a few of those ceiling tiles. And back there, hidden by the drop ceiling, they could see old-fashioned plaster mouldings: the mouldings of those doomed murals. What’s more, the mouldings were in excellent shape, complete with hand-painted titles. Dale Sellers checked out what could be glimpsed through the holes.
“I think the murals are still on these walls,” he said. “And even though there’s certainly some extensive damage with all the piping, I believe this is an original wall and it’s been simply painted over many times.”
In post offices and libraries across Texas, eight murals by Bywaters or Hogue still exist. But the ten in Dallas were the single largest collection of their work. Phoenix workers drilled exploratory holes to see what was beneath the more recent layers of paint.
So — here’s the upshot: With the exception of the titles and some painted fragments, all of the Hogue and Bywaters murals had been sledgehammered off the walls. You can watch filmmaker Mark Birnbaum’s video above to see the ongoing restoration — and the efforts of Phoenix employees to uncover what was on the walls.
“In one respect,” says Lamb, “it was great to see that there was at least remnants left, some reminder of what a great collection of murals had been there.”
Dale Sellers says a decision now faces the City of Dallas project managers and UNT, which is taking over the building.
What should be done with the bits and pieces that remain.